Schrader. Sadly, Schrader is probably first thought of as the screenwriter for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and to a lesser extent, Bringing out the Dead. He’s a masterful auteur though and has 9 films in the archives and counting (one of his strongest entries came in 2017) with 1 film in the top 200 of all-time and another 4 that just barely miss the top 100 of their respective decade. Still- for the purposes of this list, having only 1 film in the top 100 of their respective decade is a weakness—but Mishima is worth a great deal (not many yet to be named on this list have a film rated higher than my #184), and it was very easy to compile these magnificent 10+ images from various films—he’s deserving of this spot here.

From 2017’s First Reformed — 15 years after his last archiveable film- Schrader proves he may be far from finished — First Reformed is undoubtedly one of his best films

Best film:  Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

  • Schrader, for what it’s worth, considers this film his best film as director
  • Philip Glass’ luminous score and John Bailey’s photography (especially some of the venetian blind lighting/shadow work) helps make the film a truly magnificent work— the neon lights through venetian blinds in bed sequence is stunning- Schrader does some great venetian blind work (taken mainly from Bertolucci’s The Conformist) in American Gigolo as well
  • Ebert says “the most unconventional biopic I’ve ever seen, and one of the best”
  • There are 4 chapters set up in the beginning telling you the titles of the 4 much like the chapter page in a book. This is uncommon. Each chapter is rigorously a half hour long but within each chapter you have 3 narrative strands, the black and white flashbacks, the normal older Mishima driving himself to suicide, and the gorgeously mounted stage/set bound neon-colored of his work (which clearly tells a story of Mishima as well)
  • Wonderfully formally splintered
  • The film is a powerful statement (perhaps by Schrader himself that life can and will never be as perfect as art (or as it should be in Mishima’s head)). Perhaps this, along with other factors, drove him to suicide. It would be an interesting comparison with Travis Bickle.
  • The final shot of Mishima’s ritual suicide is a stunning zoom/tracking combination shot like that in vertigo and jaws
the neon lights through venetian blinds in bed sequence is stunning- Schrader does some great venetian blind work (taken mainly from Bertolucci’s The Conformist) in American Gigolo as well
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symmetry in Mishima— an incredibly strong setting of the frame and mise-en-scene there’s another one below and the shot of Gere from behind walking through the neon-soaked red bar

total archiveable films: 9

top 100 films:  0

top 500 films:  1 (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters)

top 100 films of the decade:  1 (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters)

most overrated: Nothing. Many critics think First Reformed is his best and I’m not with them (at least yet—I’ve only seen it once and look forward to a revisit)- but Schrader doesn’t have a single film in the TSPDT consensus top 1000 somehow so technically there’s nothing that’s overrated.

most underrated: There are a few underrated films –American Gigolo and Light Sleeper do nott have as good a critical reputation as they should— but it has to be Mishima. I have it as the #184 film of all-time and the TSPDT has a massive blindspot here- they can’t find room or it in their top 1000.

gem I want to spotlight:  Light Sleeper. I’d be willing to wager that 99% of people who called First Reformed Schrader’s best have never seen Mishima or Light Sleeper. Mishima, at least, has been championed by Criterion so my choice here is Light Sleeper.

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from Light Sleeper– using the doorway to frame Dafoe’s figure– very nice– but how about the lighting from above from his former Calvinist who is influenced by theological auteurs like Bresson and Bergman?
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from Light Sleeper – a vastly underrated film from 1992
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this is from Antonioni — WKW would use it 8 years later in In the Mood For Love as well- stunning.
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symmetry– again- Schrader is so much more than a writer who directs his own screenplays

stylistic innovations/traits:  Though Schrader came up as a screenwriter (and critic and film scholar) he’s an accomplished visual artist and the writing is not one of the first things that come to mind when discussing his work as an auteur. I think of the Venetian blind work in both Mishima and American Gigalo—stunning visuals (and a clear sign he was influenced by the European masters (Bertolucci in this case with the blinds)). The use of obstacles to show a divide between Dafoe and his ex in Light Sleeper are Antonioni (L’Eclisse). The use of glorious neons (in abundance for a so-called “screenwriter”) isn’t far off from say Wenders’ work in Paris, Texas (though Schrader is a contemporary of Wenders’—this isn’t an influence). Bresson is important to Schrader—most of his work, notably Light Sleeper is really from Pickpocket and you can’t talk about First Reformed without talking about Tarkovsky’s levitation and the bones of that story from Bergman’s Winter Light. Still though—there is at least some American cinema influence— the monomaniacal obsession turning his protagonists’ insane (certainly First Reformed, Hardcore) are from John Ford’s The Searchers.

clearly Schrader cared about balance and structure in the frame- — this staggering piece of mise-en-scene is from Mishima
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one of the single best shots in Schrader’s oeuvre — this here is from American Gigolo

top 10

  1. Mishima; A Life in Four Chapters
  2. Light Sleeper
  3. American Gigolo
  4. Affliction
  5. First Reformed
  6. Blue Collar
  7. Hardcore
  8. Auto Focus
  9. The Comfort of Strangers

By year and grades

1978- Blue Collar R
1979- Hardcore R
1980- American Gigolo HR
1985- Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters MS
1990- The Comfort of Strangers
1992- Light Sleeper HR
1997- Affliction HR
2002- Auto Focus R
2017- First Reformed HR

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives